Ireland – the Tasmania of Europe – is actually more Tassie than ever. An isolated island off the coast of Dublin has a mob of wild wallabies running amok on it. YES, WALLABIES.
By Nicole Buckler
As we all know, wallabies are cute little macropods found in Australia and New Guinea. They are not found anywhere else other than in their native countries. Well… that’s what you were told.
In fact, wallabies are found in a lot of places where wealthy collectors of yore wanted exotic pets and dragged them from Downunder. Of course, these marsupials soon managed to free themselves and the rest is history.
Rich people in U.K. were particular suckers for the idea of importing exotic animals into the gaff. Even cold, cold Scotland has not been immune to colonisation by our furry friends.
Inchconnachan, an island in Scotland’s Loch Lomond, has its own group of wallabies. These however weren’t criminals on the run: they were released in 1920 by Lady Arran Colquhoun, an exotic pet collector. The red-necked wallabies still roam wild in Scotland today. Such wallabies were imported along with yaks, llamas and emus. Wartime regulations forced private zoos to end, and so many animals were set free. Of all of the exotic pets released, the wallaby is the only species to have survived in the wild.
The strangest of all U.K. wallaby stories surfaced in 2007, when a fully-grown albino wallaby was photographed in Buckinghamshire, presumed to be the offspring of zoo escapees. It was as white as snow and looked totally at home in Buckinghamshire in the winter.
A colony of the furry cuties have even established themselves on the Isle of Man. The colony bred itself into existence from a single pair that escaped from the Curraghs Wildlife Park on the island some years ago. It’s like an inbreeding episode from Game of Thrones.
But of interest to Irish people is that there is now an established colony on Lambay Island – a small, isolated windswept place off the coast of Dublin.
So here’s the official story about how the wallabies arrived on the island. In the mid-1980s, Dublin Zoo had a wallaby population explosion. The wallabies were rooting for Ireland and were getting preggo way too much. Fota Wildlife Park in Cork came to their aid, and took some of the wallabies. However, there was still too many, so Dublin Zoo director Peter Wilson, not wanting to destroy the animals (or feed them to the tigers) turned to the Barings, who were the private owners of Lambay Island.
Lambay Island was the perfect place for wallabies: there was already a small population of the animals on the island. This proved that the zoo rejects would survive in the wild. And the zoo roos and the Lambay roos were the same red-necked wallaby species. This would expand the gene pool of the existing wallabies on Lambay.
So why were there wallabies on the island before the zoo roos turned up? Legend has it that the Baring family deliberately imported the wallabies from Australia as exotic pets. They also imported other animals from all over the world, having aspirations to have a private zoo. However none of the other animals survived. It is said they released the wallabies after the zoo idea proved to be a non-runner. The wallabies survived despite the annoying winters. Apparently there is an old black and white video made in about 1930 of Lord Revelstoke walking around his formal gardens on Lambay with wallabies bouncing around in the background.
The Baring family agreed to take the zoo wallabies. They were shipped to the island in fishing trawlers, and set free. And now around 50 wild wallabies live happily on the island. They have even adapted to the harsher climate quickly: they have particularly dense coats of fur compared to their Aussie cousins.
Now, they are Ireland’s only wild population of marsupials. Peter Wilson was happy with this decision, telling the Smithsonian, “It’s a wonderful sanctuary for them, if you like, a perfect habitat. There’s lots of thick vegetation for cover when the weather’s cold, and there’s a lot of grass and things for them to eat, so it’s an absolutely perfect place for them.”
In terms of an keeping an invasive species contained, the island is a good vessel: it is a three-mile swim to the mainland. Confined to the island, they’re not likely to spread, and disruption to the local eco-system can be somewhat controlled. The wallabies live happily in Ireland… probably not wondering if dryer, sunnier places exist. So Lambay Island is like a tiny Australia, for now.
Lambay Island is still privately owned: it is in the hands of Lord Revelstoke, or plain Alex Baring to his friends. He is the descendent of Cecil Baring, 3rd Lord Revelstoke, who bought the island in 1904. It has a private castle on it, which the owners still inhabit to this day.
Those interested in meeting the Irish wallabies can travel to Lambay as part of a guided tour. Once on the island you have approximately two hours to wander accompanied by one of the guides. Click here to book.
These wallabies are not available for weddings, parties, anything… which is very disappointing. However, they should be made honorary members of the Ireland-Australia Association with immediate effect.
A further interesting note about Lambay: The island has claimed a number of shipwrecks, one of the most notable of which was RMS Tayleur. One of the largest merchant ships of her day, she struck the island on 21 January 1854 just hours into her maiden voyage from Liverpool to Australia and sank with the loss of 380 lives. Just three survivors were reported, one of whom was the ship’s cook and of African origin. Legend has it that the islanders had never seen a black person before and were too shocked to open their doors to the survivor!